Words: Alex Caldwell
As the lights seem to going down on the 17-year old dance crucible of London’s fabric (though at the time of writing, pending an appeal against the geriatric machinations of Islington Council), now seems a good time as any to take stock on the heralded continuum of UK dance music from garage to grime to dubstep.
No one is any doubt that UK dance music represents a quirkier, feistier sibling to the four-to-the-floor legacy birthed in Chicago, Detroit and New York and settling into comfortable middle-age in Berlin, but it remains as always a slippery animal, conflicted and enthralling in its past, but ever more so uncertain as to its future.
With one of its prestige hosts bringing down the shutters, and the typical infrastructure that has spawned new genres of UK dance music (pirate radio, dubplate culture) being subsumed by the internet, it’s hard to see the future in terms of the continuum of UK dance music. Has it indeed come to a close? We spoke with two hardy perennials of the UK music underground, Oneman (Rinse FM stalwart and current XOYO resident) and Benny Ill from Horsepower Productions, who returned earlier this year with their first new music in a good few years with their fourth LP, Crooks, Crime and Corruption, for their insights.
Steve Bishop, aka Oneman, a DJ who slaloms through the repertoire of UK music from garage to grime to bassy equivalents from the stateside, has even greater stock to draw from the illustrious past of UK dance music, what with his current residency at Old Street’s XOYO, bringing to the bill such apparently disparate talents from across the last couple of decades as Newham Generals, to Ben UFO, to Horsepower Productions. An unabashedly UK-centric DJ, what unites these artists under the umbrella of Oneman’s curatorial hand is their status in the UK underground.
“It’s hard to see the future in terms of the continuum of UK dance music. Has it indeed come to a close?”
The closure of fabric, a dancefloor crucible of UK music every Friday for the last 17 years, at present, casts a long shadow. As I sit down with Oneman outside a pub in his native South London, the air of frustration at the closure of one of London’s cultural citadels is palpable. On the subject of fabric’s closure, he states, “my take on it is for no matter of a doubt, fabric have been asked for the last ten years by property developers, we want your club, we’re gonna build houses…. [fabric] was a main club. It’s almost a tourist attraction. Ministry of Sound is literally the only one left.” He cites as his #fabricmoment watching Craig David doing Rewind live on the stage from the Room One DJ booth (as he did in the original video) “I’ve seen this in the video for the last 15 years, and now I’m seeing this in the flesh. That was incredible. Like a memory becoming reality.”
The unwelcome curveball that is the closure of fabric is aside, Oneman has much to be happy about. A lifelong obsession with the UK underground has resulted in considerable kudos for him. Added to this, he has also achieved blue-tick verified status on Twitter and has recently judged a mix competition for classy-end of the dirty chicken merchants Nandos which, for someone who grew up in South London like myself, is almost the equivalent of being given keys to the city. Oneman, growing up listening to garage pirate radio has not just heard the sound of London change, but has seen first hand its affects on the people who actually listened to it and notes the actual affect that changes in music have on the behaviour of those who are exposed to it. Oneman points to UK funky changing wholesale the behaviour of young East London kids in the 2000’s.
“Kids in East London that were listening to grime, were dressing in tracksuits, didn’t care about girls, were carrying weapons, probably shoving weed. UK funky made them want to put a shirt on a Friday night, spray themselves with a bit of aftershave, go to a rave without any weapons, no caps, no trainers. And these kids actually changed because of the music.”
Both Oneman and Benny from Horsepower Productions, stress the importance of place in forming music. Oneman notes this tendency when discussing the FWD nights at Plastic People, the ground zero for dark, garage and UK funky, not just sonically, but also in the terms of nomenclature: ‘“I first went to FWD in 2004, and everyone was calling it FWD music. Which is exactly what happened in America – like garage was named after Paradise Garage, and house was named after Warehouse.”
Given that much of UK music has a strong sense of place, concerns can be raised when that place (or at least the London wing of it) is subject to clubs being closed, artists being priced out, as well as the sheer difficulty of making a living from music in a digital age, where everything is immediately accessible. Searching questions remains about the future. Benny from Horsepower notes the double-edged nature of UK dancefloors tending away from genre-centric purism at the cost of the window for the birth of a new seismic genre such as grime or dubstep now being seemingly nebulous. There is no present, all-conquering sound of London any more as he notes:
“It cuts both ways. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the negative side is that there’s a change to how music is developing with no particular sound commanding it. It means people can be more open to more music on a club night scenario, but there’s not going to be a new jungle or a new garage… it’s less likely to happen. I mean there could be… but it’s less likely to come from one geographical location, i.e. London, with the internet and everything. It’s harder to create a scene in your local area, which is how garage, and jungle and funky and all those sounds came out from specific areas, where they could be kept under wraps.”
“It’s harder to create a scene in your local area, which is how garage, and jungle and funky and all those sounds came out from specific areas, where they could be kept under wraps.”
Oneman is not merely uncertain of where the arch of UK dance music may go, but also is of the opinion that it is unlikely to give rise to another new ‘sound of London’ at all. He states, “UK funky was end of the line in the continuum through UK dance music. I don’t think there will ever be a scene that has such an impact. Unless it totally goes back to like the paradise garage days, as in where you have to be a member, you need to know what’s being played, and then word spreads.” As sad as it sounds, he is probably right. The UK underground does not now tend to rise up out of its habitual self-contained bunker mentality foisted by illegal parties, postcode-bound pirate radio and white labels at the back of small record shops, as it was with genres such as jungle, garage, dubstep and grime. UK dance music also enjoys (or rather, tolerates) a strained relationship with the police and the powers that be – from grime events being closed down at a tip of the police cap in the 2000’s, to the police and local London councils conspiring to shut fabric, in sharp contrast to Germany, where techno Valhalla Berghain has now received official recognition as ‘high culture’ by the German courts.
The underground mentality, as insular and elitist as it may sound, was the environment that lead to the blooming of many new UK genres, developed in splendid isolation by producers and DJs exercising a laser-like focus on the potentialities of a dubstep, or a grime. As Burial noted in an interview on Blackdown’s blog (an encyclopaedic reference guide to UK dubstep/grime/funky as you ever likely to find) way back, “the music is in good shape because everyone’s in splinter cells. They’re in the ditch – there’s no highway to attract the rubbish producers. The lights of the highway – that’s when it goes shit. But right now it’s all ditch, just darkness.”
With the closure of not just fabric, but also other London clubs such as Dance Tunnel, and with others likely to be in the crosshairs of moralistic councillors, stretched police forces and international capital, this ‘darkness’ seems to loom ever larger. The bright side of this darkness, however, may be that underground UK music is pared back; losing its hallowed stomping grounds such as fabric, it has to retreat into the isolation which allows a new sound to emerge. But this may be looking into the crystal ball with rose-tinted spectacles, and as Benny from Horsepower has it, “is more of an observation than a prophecy.” Time, and talent, as ever, will tell.